There were definitely some peaks and valleys in the first cour of Space Dandy, which are inherent in the style with which it chose to tell its story. But in the end I think this was the best overall new series of the season because it managed to combine pure entertainment and loftier ambitions better than any of the rest. Hoozuki no Reitetsu is right there and Noragami was for a while, too, but looking back the season as a whole, Space Dandy just seems to have that little extra spark of genius that nudges it to the front of the line.
This is a show that sneaks up on you. It was easy enough to believe, for a long time, that Space Dandy really was nothing more than what Watanabe Shinichirou hinted that it would be – a light entertainment with lowbrow comedy and highbrow animation, and no aspirations to be anything more. But it should have been obvious that with the caliber of talent involved things wouldn’t be that simple, and that’s exactly how it turned out. There was plenty of lowbrow comedy and the series was usually a blast, but between the endless cultural references, the philosophical musings and the sneaky-powerful character moments it’s a show that ends up making quite an intellectual and even emotional impact.
QT has mostly been in the background while other characters have had their spotlight dances, but he’s always provided both a source for comedy and an anchor of common sense at the heart of the madness. Last week he finally got the comic headlines, and now he gets the emotional star turn that Dandy got in the fifth episode and Meow the 10th, and it’s no less effective. It comes in the form of a chance meeting with a coffeemaker, Maker-san (Hirano Aya) during a visit to the local kissaten with Dandy and Meow.
Certainly, we’ve seen the themes presented in this episode – A.I. with emotions, robot revolutions, et al – many times before. But as always Space Dandy isn’t about re-invention but rather paying tribute to the sort of mass entertainment that the staff clearly loves, and putting a fresh spin on it. Having managed coffee houses for years I confess a certain bias in favor, but I loved the presentation here (and I can tell you, the corporate bigwigs probably dream at night of machines that serve the coffee themselves and eliminate the need for messy, complicated humans). The staff at this one consists of Maker-san, the grinder, Mill-san (Neya Michiko) and the brainy cash register, Register-san (Gotou Hiroki). QT immediately takes a shine to Maker-san, who seems to reciprocate his feelings – and his feelings broaden over time, as she shares her wish to see the outside world and not just the inside of a cafe.
All this in the context of the “23 Day Story of How a Vacuum Cleaner Came to Enjoy Drinking Coffee”. QT, of course, thinks love is one of the “pointless things” in the universe, and who can blame him after seeing how it makes Dandy and Meow act? Yet his feelings for Maker are undeniable, and he eventually sneaks into the cafe after closing and takes her on a joy ride (albeit a slow one, as it’s on his back) to see the world she’s only dreamed about. But love – or any emotion – is forbidden to A.I. in this world and those who exhibit them are shipped off to the ironically named “Dream Island” to rot. Except there, abandoned and forgotten by biological types, their consciousness thrives – Register-san becomes a DJ at nightly dance parties, and grizzled old Toaster-san (Ohtsuka Akio) is nursing a plot to wipe out their organic overlords and take over the world.
Again, this is familiar territory, from the likes of Wall-E and The Brave Little Toaster all the way up to A.I.: Artificial Intelligence – but again, Space Dandy (this time the writer/director team is Satou Dai and Natsume Shingo) finds something new in paying tribute to something familiar. As much as anything the second half of the episode feels like something out of FLCL, as Toaster-san’s giant robot goes on a rampage and QT – who’s become supersized thanks to the “Big Dipper Experiment” (or perhaps simply love) that Dr. Gel seems to have sabotaged on purpose – heeds Maker-san’s pleas to try and stop it. It’s gloriously animated – this show pretty much always is – and directed with great wit and visual flair. In the end, it wasn’t QT that Maker-san loved at all, but Register-san – leaving QT a little wiser, a lot more banged up and sporting a java jones to show for his trouble.
What we didn’t get here was any firm indication of why Dr. Gel (who actually survives the episode) and the Gogol Empire are after Dandy, and how the multiple realities that are clearly integral to the series’ mythology work. That will seemingly fall to the Summer cour to deal with, perhaps an early indication that the series is going to broadly continue its episodic style rather then morph into something altogether different. Considering that the last four episodes were all top-notch, the evidence is that Space Dandy has definitively found its zone, and that makes the prospect of another season on the same progression altogether welcome.
It’s not really appropriate to do a series review for a series that’s only half over, and I don’t want to rehash the tired old debate about the elements of this show’s creation that have nothing to do with the content of the show itself. It is important to put Space Dandy in some context, though, and there’s no denying it represents something highly unusual both in terms of its content and its commercial model. By trying – and apparently succeeding – to market an anime to a much wider audience than the current Blu-ray and DVD buying demographic and still be profitable, BONES took a big risk with this series. Hopefully, in doing so, they’ll encourage other studios to be more creative and bolder in terms of who they reach out to – not to mention embolden BONES to continue to do so themselves. I don’t see how that could possibly be a bad thing but that there’s been a backlash against this series for doing all that is, in my view, hard to deny. When a group feels as if their preferences control the direction of the medium, it isn’t surprising that they’d feel hostile towards a series that seeks to prove success is possible without pandering to their preferences.
In the final analysis, what matters most about Space Dandy is whether it’s artistically successful or not. By that purely subjective measure I think it’s a major triumph, even if a few early episodes ended up being fairly pedestrian. From the OP and ED to something as simple as the eyecatches this series was exceptional – infused with imagination brought to life with great talent. The top-notch animation was no surprise, but the degree to which Space Dandy was thought-provoking and emotionally insightful far exceeded my expectations after the first few episodes. Talent has a way of winning out in the end, in anime as in other things – it doesn’t always work out that way, but generally speaking betting on a thoroughbred like Watanabe-sensei and a studio like BONES gives you pretty good odds. They paid off with the best new series of the Winter, and I fully expect Space Dandy to be one of the best series of the Summer.